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Time-Tested Rehearsal Ideas

compiled by editors | May 2014

    Last month a distinguished group of directors shared their favorite rehearsal ideas. Their ideas were so outstanding and so many more have continued to arrive that we are now publishing a second round of outstanding suggestions to improve rehearsal success and effectiveness.

What is the most useful idea that you learned from someone else?

Richard Crain (President, Midwest Clinic):
1. Begin rehearsal with daily drills and fundamentals to develop ensemble quality. Then the musical qualities can be taken to a higher level.
2. Be prepared – don’t waste students’ time.
3. Divide the band into chamber ensembles to rehearse the music. Students become more accountable for learning their parts and understand better how they fit into the ensemble. It also improves their small ensemble skills.

Julie Carr (Ithaca College, New York): The best rehearsal technique I learned from another teacher (Louis Bergonzi) was to keep all the students involved during the entire rehearsal. When working with one section, make sure to include the rest of the group – whether it be active participation such as clapping the beat or air bowing their own parts, or passive participation such as listening for particular techniques the conductor is working on with the other sections.

Richard Floyd (Texas State Director of Music Emeritus): Joe Frank was an iconic Texas band director at both the high school and collegiate level. The final years of his teaching career were spent as a high school orchestra director in Richardson, Texas. He was an exceptional teacher, and I learned much from him during the years we taught together. He had a masterful way of putting musical concepts in terms that were easily understood by students.
    For example he would compare an isolated chord of brief duration to a basketball. Think about it. Have you ever played with a basketball that was underinflated? The ball looks right and gives the appearance of being ready for play,  but when you pick the ball up and attempt to dribble, there is no life. It does not rebound to your hand and that nice resonant ring is missing.
    There is only one thing wrong. The air pressure inside the ball is not sufficient to give it life. If you inflate the ball to regulation pressure, the shape does not change, but the increased pressure inside the ball gives it the attribute required to spring back each time it is dribbled.
    Joe Frank taught me that short notes in music respond the same way. It is the breath support (breath pressure) inside the note that enriches the tone. Just as the air inside a basketball brings it to life, increased breath support inside short notes gives them beauty and resonance. Students easily understand this idea, and all it takes is a simple reminder to make the notes at Letter B sound like basketballs to achieve a musical result.

Chris Harper (Metter Middle School/Metter High School, Georgia): The best rehearsal technique I learned from another director is to have a detailed plan (not the lesson plans that your Admin wants a million details about) of what goals you wish to accomplish. This plan should give a sense of excitement to students and subtle urgency to the director. We get so caught up in the administrative side of our jobs that we forget pacing. We cannot learn the concert march one week before festival after we have committed to a piece that perhaps we should not have worked up. It is all about a daily plan – today on the march I will first rehearse measures 37 to the large dynamic contrast at measure 54. I will run all my pieces on Fridays to take mental and written notes of what must be rehearsed or fixed on Monday. This is something specific that I learned from a well-known and highly-honored director, Deborah Bradley.

H. Robert Reynolds (University of Southern California): I have observed many of the truly great conductors in rehearsal (Ormandy, Levine, Gergiev, Dudamel, Mehta, Salonen, etc.). They all had different rehearsal styles, but one thing was common to all: they had a strong internal aural image of what the music should be, then they rehearsed in order to achieve their inner aural image. I try to do the same.

Rodney Dorsey (University of Oregon): One of my clarinet teachers, Frank Kowalsky, stressed the importance of slow practice. I have used this technique when rehearsing fast music with large ensembles. Playing fast music at half speed gives the musicians a chance to listen and focus on their tone while feeling each note under their fingers.

Garwood Whaley (Conductor Emeritus, Bishop Ireton High School, Alexandria, Virginia): There are really two important things. First, whenever asking for something from an individual, section, or ensemble, always phrase things in a positive manner and use we not I. The second idea comes from Ed Lisk, who would divide a group into SATB (groups 4, 3, 2, 1) to work on pyramid balancing during warm ups. Making students aware of their role in the pyramid can drastically change the sound of a group and improve intonation immediately.

Quincy Hilliard (University of Louisiana at Lafayette): You must have a systematic warm-up to be done as a routine every day to ensure good tone and intonation development. The warm-up must include a breathing exercise, long tones (listen and match pitches), lip flexibility exercises, scales, and a chorale.

James C. Barnes (University of Kansas): When I was a graduate student working with Robert E. Foster at the University of Kansas in the early 1970s, we were walking back to the music building after a particularly difficult marching band rehearsal. I commented to Bob that I really admired his patience with the students as we taught them a difficult new drill. Bob said, “kids don’t make mistakes on purpose.” Although I have had major slips from time to time, I have always tried to remember that when I teach and conduct.

Leola Woods (Acadian Middle School, Lafayette Middle School): Always spend more time playing than talking. The director that I learned this from always made careful, concise comments. He did stop often to make corrections or tailor sections of the music, but there was not any wasted conversation. He knew exactly what he wanted the students to do and delivered those expectations in a very direct manner. This helps keep me and the students focused and moving in the same direction.

Robert E. Foster (University of Kansas): When working on technically challenging music, the fingers (on valves or keys) must move at the same time or the notes don’t come out precisely together. I think it was William Revelli who I heard say that. When everyone is playing it is frequently hard to tell just how precise or imprecise some fast passages are. If you rehearse these passages without playing, you can concentrate and focus on the fingers, and develop precision and accuracy much faster. Try singing and fingering, instead of just playing through it one more time.

Andrew Mast (Lawrence University): The single best rehearsal technique I learned from another teacher was when I saw Mark Kelly dissect a march as though it were a frog in biology lab. He first had the tubas, then the horns, then both together play their accompaniment lines so slowly it was almost a chorale, and this gave the rhythm and harmony of the march so much more substance and style it was mind-blowing.

Dawn Meyers (Scott Middle School, Louisiana): The best technique I learned from another teacher is a routine for students to follow when reading a piece of music for the first time. After instructing them to pay attention to the time signature and key signature, they immediately begin to tah the rhythms while they are moving their fingers along with the music. I find this helps students have more confidence and accuracy when they play through the piece in its entirety for the first time.

Thom Hannum (University of Massachusetts Amherst): Repetition. Sometimes less talking and more action can allow students to progress to a greater degree than a thorough explanation of what needs to be fixed and how. In all likelihood, a balance of the two is probably best. Experienced teachers have an instinct for when each is appropriate.

Christopher Madsen (Northwestern University): Bob Lark taught me to use listening examples for students. Particularly in jazz, students respond tremendously to aural examples and are able to understand, analyze, and replicate ideas much more effectively than simply reading notes off of a page.

Christopher Heidenreich (University of Michigan–Flint): Ask players to focus on the shape or direction of the musical line when they cannot seem to find the balance, blend, or tuning. I have stolen this from Michael Haithcock, and I have found that this technique focuses the listening while improving each of these areas simply by asking the players to focus on creating a musical phrase.

Robert Lark (DePaul University): For an ensemble, section, or applied lesson activity pertaining to difficulty with a rhythmic figure, try the following method.
A: Instructor sings aloud the rhythmic figure; correct pitches are not necessary.
B: Next, the instructor and the ensemble, section, or individual student together sing the rhythmic figure. If you hear a rhythmic error, specify the portion of the figure that was incorrect, and repeat steps A and B at a slower tempo.
C: The ensemble, section, or individual sings the rhythmic figure again, this time without the assistance of the instructor. If the rhythmic error continues, isolate the specific rhythmic problem and continue steps A, B, and C at a slower tempo.

What is the best rehearsal technique that you have developed?

Rodney Dorsey: I didn’t develop this on my own, but I like to have groups play without the conductor. Students must listen inside the ensemble for pulse, melodic activity, phrase shape, and counter-melody. 

Dawn Meyers: When my group is warming up, the brass players play an eighth note/quarter note exercise consisting of lip slurs. To include the woodwinds in this exercise, I created a whole note exercise for them to play and accompany the brass players. This allows them to work on long tones at the same time.

Robert E. Foster: When one section or group plays alone in rehearsal, have the other players finger and sing their parts. This gives them additional repetition, and it keeps them more involved. Singing can be a good rehearsal device.

Julie Carr: I use singing letter names as an integral part of learning a new piece. With young beginners and new readers in my orchestras, I have found that having them sing their part helps them to learn to read the notes faster, accelerates their ability to play in tune, and encourages them to listen to the other sections of the orchestra. Because this is something we also stress in lessons, it is easy to carry over into the large rehearsal. When working with one section, I will frequently have the other sections air bow and sing their parts. Many of the students can actually sing the entire orchestra repertoire independently.

Quincy Hilliard: I learned to have a plan for rehearsal. I would work sections of the piece that need the most work at the beginning of rehearsal when the students were fresh and focused. Then, I would proceed to the next piece with problems, and finally to the piece that needed the least work.

James Barnes: After many years of rehearsing new pieces, I have found that the most economical way to get the most done in the least amount of time is to first, if at all possible, read the piece straight through without stopping. Then, go back and rehearse the final portion to the end. Next, go farther back and rehearse the middle portion of the piece, and then continue playing all the way to end. Finally, go back to the beginning, rehearse that portion, then play the piece straight through to the end. Although it drives timpanists crazy, because they have to tune backwards, I have found that this gets the most play-throughs done in the least amount of time. The players have a much better feel for how the entire piece should go.

Richard Floyd: I am always seeking easily understood, efficient strategies that communicate and emphasize desirable musical outcomes for students. One highly effective example of this technique is the use of the word tone to strengthen the concept of note shape as it relates to an isolated tone that requires both precision and resonance.
     While we view the word tone as being one syllable it actually has three components. The first sound we speak or hear is a crisp t that represents the beginning of the word. This t melds into an oh which is round, full, and resonant. Then the word closes quietly with the sound nnn. When spoken in sequence what you hear is an articulate, precise beginning, followed by a round resonant center, and an audible closure that has decay. This concept gives students a keen awareness of the optimum shape for an isolated unison or chord that requires a focused beginning, a rich full core to the sound, and a slightly tapered release.
     I begin by having the students speak the word tone. Make sure the t is light and crisp, and that the core of the word (the o) is resonant. The closure of the word (the nnn) must have audible length to create a slight taper. Once the concept is understood it is necessary to take a moment to sustain and groom the chord being addressed to create a desirable balance and blend. Then, have students say the word tone several more times, asking them to listen carefully to the shape of the word. The final step is simply to have students play the chord and make it sound like the word tone. It has been my experience that the resulting sound is articulate and rich in quality with just the right amount of length to give it tonal beauty.

Richard Crain: Make every comment positive – do not belittle or embarrass. Empasize and help students understand. It is their band. Don’t get caught up in minutiae that cause the rehearsal to lag. Avoid using the word I too much.

H. Robert Reynolds: When there are intonation problems, have all players involved sing the desired pitch. I even use this during the tuning process at the beginning of rehearsals by having everyone sing the tuning note. Players tune to their own inner image of the pitch. Singing establishes the same inner image for all.

Chris Harper: I have a band room that has a good amount of sunlight to illuminate the band’s rehearsal area. When I feel that the focus is fading due to the 90-minute block period, I turn off the bright fluorescent lights and let the natural light come through. It completely changes the attitudes, pacing from me, and musical responses from the ensemble. They end their day relaxed. Other teachers are envious.

Christopher Madsen: I have developed a technique for sightreading where, after the first run, I ask the students to zero in on places that they know were troublesome. I give them about 2-3 minutes to silently run through the figures, then ask the section leaders what one passage they would like to rehearse briefly. After going through these designated sections, we read the entire piece over again, and the results are noticeably better the second time. This is particularly effective because of its efficiency; it is like deep cleaning one spot in your carpet instead of washing the entire thing.

Robert Lark: Problem: ensemble, section, or individual rushes when performing a figure or phrase. Solution:  elongate, lengthen the notes that comprise the rhythmic figure. This is especially true when performing 8th-note and 16th-note based passages, and very often the case at the beginning of a rhythmically dense (i.e. 8th-note or 16th-note based) passage.

Thom Hannum: Rehearsal effectiveness is the result of clearly communicated expectations, a quiet environment to allow for concentration, and a measured accountability for the assignment.

Leola Woods: One of the most useful, simple, and extremely effective rehearsal techniques that I have developed is the podium rule. This simple technique helps to not only maintain order but keeps students focused and attentive. It starts as a game with my beginners. They enter the room and get their instruments out. As soon as I step on the podium, they are to come to ready position and become completely silent and still. They love to compete with other classes to achieve the fastest response time. After the first year the technique is a regular part of the class routine. It is also a good tool to draw the students back in when they start to lose focus. I make a big deal of stepping off the podium; I wait a few seconds and then step back up. The students instantly realize what corrections need to take place and adjust accordingly.

Garwood Whaley: Frustrated with countless rhythm problems when I was first starting out as a band director, I developed rhythm exercises that turned into a book published by Meredith Music Publications titled Basics in Rhythm. Every student has a copy, and we begin each rehearsal by clapping and counting out loud pages from the book. By counting out loud, students develop a skill I call rhythmic solfege. That is the ability to hear the counting in their minds when playing a rhythm. This drastically improves sightreading and allows students to deal with any rhythm they encounter. With this proactive approach, my group never had problems with rhythm.

Andrew Mast: Good rehearsals come from thoughtful score study grounded in solid musicianship, and any short-term techniques are simple outgrowths of that. I fear that any perception of rehearsals as a collection of short bits degrades the artistic and education processes involved. So, I really believe rehearsals are a rich process of holistically integrated near- and long-term goals.

Christopher Heidenreich: I turn to the percussion section to demonstrate a particular type of articulation or style that I am seeking. For example, a well-played triangle helps give instrumentalists a model for a lighter tongue or bow. A woodblock models a short but more defined beginning to a note, while a bass drum allows the players to hear a fuller note with more body. At the same time, this technique focuses percussion technique, and keeps those players involved in the rehearsal as they never know when I might call on them to perform for the ensemble.


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Brian Peter (Westlake High School, Westlake Village, California)
Singing Chords and Chorales
     Early in my teaching career I attended the Southern California School Band and Orchestra Association conference. The band for a rehearsal techniques clinic was an outstanding college wind ensemble. The clinician asked the ensemble to play a Bach chorale, and it was wonderful. At the end of the chorale, he held and extended the final chord to give students time to make subtle adjustments to pitch and balance and further refine the sound. The sound was beautiful, and I was impressed. Next, he asked them to sing the same short chorale on the syllable AH, and use a legato DAH for articulated notes. After some encouragement, the students sat up tall, took deeper breaths, opened their jaws wider, used their chest voices, and sang out fully. As they sang the last chord, the sound was so full, pure, and perfectly in tune. Immediately after the vocal release, instruments came up, and without instruction, the final chord was played on instruments. I was in disbelief at how significant the improvement was from the first time the chorale was played. I did not realize so great a change was possible with that fine of an ensemble. The entire audience looked around and smiled, and the student performers did, too. I never forgot that lesson or the sound of that band after they sang.
     Have your ensemble play a chord and then sing the chord with AH. Look around the room and check for good posture, open jaws, and deep breathing, especially after the initial breath. At first I sometimes tell students to sing in what I call Radio Voice – “Sunday, Sunday, Sunday! The MOOONSTER trucks are back!” – or ask them to imitate how announcers speak at professional sport parks. This helps students use their chest voice instead of their head voice. In radio voice, on your cue, have the group say together in a firm manner, “Sunday Sunday Sunday!!” Next, insert a ritard and modify the word to “SunDAAH, SunnnDAAAHH, SunnnnDAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH.” Speaking slowly and holding out vowels is an easy and basic way to start singing. Ask students to sing louder and louder still. They will if you insist on it. Have the percussionists join in too. Have students put their palms on their sternums until they feel their chest resonating while they sing. Next, ask them to close their lips, but keep jaws as open as possible, and huuuummmm. If done well, their noses might tickle. While humming, bring instruments to playing position. Then, immediately breathe in, and play the last fermata of the chorale. This should be done while thinking about making the instruments an extension of their voices, which is ultimately an extension of themselves, like singing. This will produce a new level of sound from the ensemble.
     Finally, point out to students that no direction came from the podium regarding flat or sharp, or softer or louder, etc. No one person was instructed to do any one thing differently. Yet, the ensemble now sounds greatly improved because they listened. Be sure that students know to keep instrument- and register-specific vowel shapes that you have defined previously. They should not all change to playing the AH vowel that was used  when they sang. For example, low brass in lower registers may prefer OH, and clarinets might prefer EEE in all registers.

Stop Tuning and Start Toning
     After warm-up, provide the ensemble with the reference pitch you use. Then, select the member of each section who has the best tone. (You can even make this into a blind tone-test game, where ensemble members in a section play one at a time, then other students vote blindly on their favorite. The student selected may not be the principal of the section, and that is ok.) Have these students sustain the selected tuning note. If they hear that they are out of tune to the reference pitch, encourage them to improve their tone first. This can be done with more air, faster or slower air, adjustment to the embouchure, posture, instrument position, etc. Once they achieve their best tone, then move the tuning slide, head joint, or mouthpiece accordingly to fix any remaining pitch problems.
     Next, add in one section member at a time and ask them to sustain and match the tone. Tell them to become a musical chameleon and match the tone they hear from the first musician. You can even ping pong back and forth between two students, having each play one at a time. Ask students to compare the differences between the two tones. (This is also a great time to speak about active and passive listening.) This exercise is obviously an active listening activity, and it is what students should do during rehearsal and performance. By focusing on tone, students will also become much more balanced, centered, and in tune. When directors only focus on tuning during the tuning process, they miss an opportunity to practice matching tone and solving one of the biggest problems with pitch, which is poor balance.

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Mark Camphouse (conductor and composer, George Mason University):
My principal conducting teacher was long-time Northwestern University director of bands, John P. Paynter. My private conducting lessons with him were extremely valuable and were largely devoted to score study and analysis, given his expertise as a composition (not conducting or music education) major. He instilled in me what I view as being the number one priority for all conductors: do your homework prior to rehearsals and become, as Erich Leinsdorf said, the Composer’s Advocate. Because of his thorough score study and superb organizational skills, N.U. Wind Ensemble rehearsals under Mr. Paynter’s direction were always extraordinarily efficient, productive, and enriching … by far the most enlightening conducting lessons I ever experienced. It is highly unlikely that a conductor can possess effective rehearsal technique without thorough pre-rehearsal preparation.

Specific rehearsal techniques I learned from John P. Paynter:
• Conductors must possess excellent organizational skills. Accordingly, always post rehearsal order on the band bulletin board well prior to rehearsals to enable players to know what is expected of them. Be sure to adhere to the posted schedule.
• Rehearsals must always begin and end on time!
• When rehearsing a work for the first time, strive to not stop in order to give the ensemble a good initial (macro) idea of the piece. The micro elements and other details can come later as you engage in surgical rehearsing and sectional rehearsals.
• Be positive. Be demanding, yet kind. Be a good motivator.
• Don’t choreograph. Remember, it is about the music and your students. It’s not about you!

     There are no tricks when it comes to developing and adhering to effective rehearsal techniques. We all know the critical importance of helping our students develop good basic playing fundamentals from among the three Ts: tone, time, and technique. Similarly, good, basic rehearsal technique fundamentals by the conductor must also be developed through regular self-assessment and external observations by colleagues you respect and trust. It goes without saying that good conductors and teachers want students to acquire good time management skills. But we must practice what we preach! If we want our students to be well-prepared for rehearsals, we must demonstrate that we, as conductors, are especially well-prepared and efficient. Here is what I have found to be especially helpful in this regard:

• I cannot be at my best rushing into a rehearsal immediately following a class, private lesson, or (God forbid) faculty or committee meeting. I am fanatical about always trying to block 60-90 minutes for score study and other aspects of organizational planning prior to a rehearsal. This is critically important. It may sound a bit selfish to some, but we must find quality study time in a quiet environment for ourselves if we are going to suceed in teaching a piece effectively to our students.
• Pose questions to your students and help them to really learn to listen across the band. For example, “Clarinets, who has the melody with you at letter B?” “Tubas, what are the flutes doing three measures before letter S?” “Percussion, what other instruments have the ostinato with you here?”
• Use appropriate analogies from everyday life in order to get a particular musical point across to your players: “Woodwinds, can you please try to paint this passage with the same muted colors Mother Nature used so beautifully during last evening’s sunset?” “Percussion, the impact of your attack in measure 57 needs to be a single stick of dynamite, not a thermonuclear detonation!”
• If you are playing a work by a living composer, make an effort to contact the composer, and share their authentic creative insights and perspectives with your students.
• Always let your love of music be visible to your students, and be thankful that we have the pleasure and privilege of being musicians.



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Russel Mikkelson (Ohio State University)
        To enhance student listening, rhythmic integrity, and ensemble precision, I often use a combination of two techniques. I refer to these as composite rhythm and playing attacks only. Composite rhythm is a technique of combining the rhythmic language in a given measure or section to understand and hear the resultant rhythm when all parts are played. For example:

The composite/resultant rhythm

    Next, rehearse this section by playing attacks only. That is to say, play all articulated notes staccato, removing all sustained note values. This will clarify the composite rhythm, improve student listening, and improve the rhythmic integrity of the ensemble.
    I have also written a composite melody of movement 3 of Percy Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy, “Rufford Park Poachers.” The opening 18 measures of this movement are in a two-part canon, with part 2 moving two eighth notes behind part 1. In order to hear the interaction of both parts, and as a means of internalizing the music, I suggest memorizing/singing this melody (or a similar composite you create yourself), combining the important moving lines of both parts of the canon.